Michael Tweety in Philadelphia: Wisdom from Weitzman’s “Koshersoul” book signing

Food is more than just what’s on the plate, and writer/historian Michael Tweety skillfully uses it as a catalyst for discussions about history, economics, and the power structures that make up modern society.

A black, Jewish, and Southern man, Twitty received the James Beard Book Award for his ability to investigate the intersections of personal experience, culinary traditions, and the racial politics of food. His book “The Culinary Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South” and “Rice: A Taste of the South” examine American history to reveal the impact of the African diaspora on the foods we eat today, from grilled meats to jambalaya.

For Tweety, food is a roadmap for discovering facts about human contact.

In his new edition “Cochersole: The Journey of Faith and Food for an African American Jew,” the author takes readers on a journey through the food traditions of the African Atlantic and the global Jewish diaspora to uncover the similarities between the two.

“I want food that helps you understand why you are at all,” Tweety told Billy Benn. “It’s away [toward] Sympathy, compassion and consideration for your neighbor.”

On September 22, the Whitsman Museum of American Jewish History will host a book signing and discussion with Tweety and Jewish culinary scholar Joanne Nathan. This event comes just before the Jewish New Year when foods such as apples, honey, and round bread are considered symbolic offerings for the coming year.

Before his talk at the museum in the Independence Mall, here are three notes from Tweety about self-reflection, discovering your identities, and exploring culinary traditions.

History does not happen in a vacuum

Twitty’s writing often focuses on what can seem like an unexpected idea: people in what he calls the Old South “are more closely related to each other than to others.”

For him, the idea is a reminder that when communities live side by side in a particular location for hundreds of years, their cultures will begin to mingle, creating something that uniquely expresses that place. It is a connection. It is intersecting. “There are a lot of cultural crossroads involved,” Tweety said.

Some examples: the way Charleston red rice is kept by Golla communities along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia is similar to Gollof rice in West Africa, or how black Jewish cuisine is “where schmeltz, smoked turkey, radish, and hot sauce meet.”

But understanding how societies have intertwined throughout history is only part of the story. Tweety said he wants his work to facilitate conversations about America’s ingrained power structures and systemic racism, which he hopes will help correct misconceptions about the kitchens of marginalized people.

The author, for example, is clear on why there is so much African influence in American food – it’s because of the enslaved Africans who were brought here. When it comes to Southern cuisine in particular, Tweety noted that it’s the context surrounding those foods that creates different culinary traditions.

“From a food perspective, white and black Southerners have to be on the same page most of the time. But why aren’t we? Because food is similar but not the same. The purpose behind food isn’t always the same,” Tweety explained. Eggs are totally in their food—resistance.”

Tweety believes resilience and perseverance make the black food culture distinctly different.

Tweety said white communities did not face unique pressures in displacement to maintain culinary traditions. “They did not have to constantly watch where the goalposts landed,” and while food is associated with Africa, “it has no effect” on them because they “do not see themselves… a cultural descendant of Africa.”

Brett Hartman / Ted

Think about the multiple and interrelated purposes of food

Twitty encourages readers to think about the layers within the recipe, which hold stories about where the ingredients came from, what they code for, and who brought them here. Exploring your culinary history begins with thinking about the purpose of a particular dish.

Tweety said that when starting any research, he would always ask this guiding question: How does food shape people?

“Food is kept for its purposes,” Tweety said. Saturday dinners, Sunday feasts, and even eagles dishes, are all designed to bring people together. Food can also be a window into certain moments in time.

“Food also changes on multiple levels. It’s regional. It’s seasonal. It’s chronological. It expresses history and time,” Tweety said, explaining that you can see the history of the African and Jewish diaspora through their kitchens. All of them have experienced seismic changes — and continued Survival stories in their food.

With Africans and Jews spreading all over the world, Tweety said they have adapted their traditional recipes with new ingredients. Africans replaced sweet potatoes with yams in the Americas, while Ashkenazi Jews fed their communities with pickled herring on rye in Northern Europe. Tweety said these changes helped these diaspora maintain “essential” links with their homeland and culture.

Don’t expect research to be a linear process

When Tweety began researching his culinary heritage, he began with his family’s oral history and collective memories. From there, Tweety said he strived to learn as much as possible from many different sources, branching out from cookbooks to history textbooks and even religious texts.

“Food is one of the most comprehensive aspects of our lives. It is linked to our health, it is linked to our family traditions, and [connects with] Tweety said. “So don’t let yourself be without his heart.”

Tweety also suggested sticking firmly with the idea that food is constantly evolving and operating in response to moments in history.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they get into this with an ‘Oh, nothing’s changed’ attitude,” Tweety said.[But food is] It’s changing now.”

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